It’s common for border crisis volunteers like Adams to see children cling to their parents with tight fists, eyes darting with apprehension. By the time Border Patrol agents release them from holding facilities to shelters and churches, these families have already been away from their home countries for months. Many fled violence, persecution, and poverty only to face an administration seeking to deter migrants from entering.
When the Trump administration stopped people from entering the port of entry to seek asylum, thousands sought to cross the border unlawfully and surrender themselves to Border Patrol agents.
The record-breaking numbers of Border Patrol apprehensions have dragged public attention to the border. President Trump has repeatedly condemned migrant arrivals at the southern border, calling it “an invasion.” He’s mocked asylum-seekers as tattoo-bearing, thuggish men who “read a little page given by lawyers” coaching them to fake sob stories—a very different spin from what’s actually happening: Most of the migrants approaching the border today are vulnerable families and children, and a vast majority don’t have lawyers.
For the churches that are doing whatever they can to help this much-maligned group feel safe, the task has not been easy.
Often by the time these migrants arrive at churches, they’ve been held in cells under horrible conditions and bused for hundreds of miles from facility to facility, not knowing where they are or what’s happening. Most migrants have heard about U.S. officials separating families, or have been separated themselves. So they hold their children close and refuse to put them down. The kids pick up on their parents’ tension, and they instinctively feel unsafe.
When Border Patrol drops migrants off at shelters, the first thing Adams does is touch the children—she cups their foreheads for signs of fever, bops little noses for signs of a cold, pats their bellies for signs of bloating. Those medical conditions she can fix as a nurse—but not the psychological ones. Once, she met a migrant girl who wailed all day and wouldn’t let any adult hug or console her. But it’s the look of stupor that most worries Adams: When she offers a doll to a girl who does nothing but stare back with dead eyes, she knows that’s the mark of severe trauma.
In many border cities, certain churches and nonprofits have been helping passing migrants for decades. What’s different now is the number of people crossing the border and the level of chaos in how various federal agencies are dealing with the situation. In the El Paso sector alone, Border Patrol agents apprehended 14,593 unaccompanied minors and 117,612 family units within this fiscal year.
Overcrowded and understaffed, the El Paso facilities have the worst reputation, with one observer describing the Border Patrol holding facility as a “human dog pound.” Custody logs show that agents had crammed up to 900 migrants in a facility designed for 125, breaking its own guidelines by holding them for more than 72 hours. As Border Patrol ran out of space, it resorted to keeping migrants under a bridge, where people slept on rock and dirt during cold desert nights.
By February, as the numbers kept soaring, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) sent out a call for more people to help. The few churches helping weren’t enough.
In El Paso, a network of about 30 churches answered the call. In Las Cruces, 23 churches signed up. Almost all these asylum-seekers already have sponsors in the United States—family members, relatives, or friends who agree to house them while they wait for their court hearings. After ICE or Border Patrol drops them off, churches give them a temporary place to stay and help them plan the logistics of traveling to their sponsors.
In Las Cruces, Heart for the World Church has been receiving about 20 asylum-seekers every Tuesday since March. Green cots topped with blankets and stuffed toys line the back of a room; the kids’ play tables are piled with coloring books, crayons, and blocks; and an earthly aroma of chicken broth and simmering beans emanates from the kitchen, where volunteers prepare the main meal and pack PB&J sandwiches for the road.